31 May 2018
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Finding Freedom from Eating Disorders

Lindsay Ronga (MBA 2009) suffered from a severe eating disorder for seven years before eventually finding a path to successful recovery. Now, as a recovery coach, she wants to let people know that they are not alone—and they have other treatment options.

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Dan Morrell: About a decade ago, Lindsay Ronga realized that she had developed an eating disorder. She was in the midst of applying to business schools and had started over-exercising and restricting her food intake. The realization was stunning. It was all new to her—she’d never known anyone who’d had an eating disorder, and hadn’t thought much about it before. It just wasn’t on her radar. But as she’d discover, eating disorders are a pervasive form of mental illness—affecting more than 30 million people in the US and 70 million people worldwide. Today, Lindsay is the founder of an eating disorder recovery practice in Austin. Here, she speaks with associate editor Jen Flint about what she's learned from her experience—and how that's shaped her approach to recovery.

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Jen Flint: Lindsay, this story for you starts in the period of your life just before business school. Can you talk a little bit about the circumstances of your life at that time? And how did they lead you to this moment of discovery that you were suffering from an eating disorder?

Lindsay Ronga: So I was working in private equity in Boston at the time. I had just come off of two years in investment banking. I had always been fairly active in terms of exercise and running. In fact, I was training for a couple half marathons, which soon turned into marathon training at the time. Not unusual for me, and I had decided to take on the task of applying to business schools. And not just any business schools, but Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Kellogg.

I was working anywhere from 80 to 95 hours per week in private equity. I was the only female at the firm of three offices. To me, when I discovered I had the eating disorder, it was a process. It's not a moment where you all of a sudden say, aha, this is what's going on.

There's a lot of denial involved. There's a lot of-- this isn't an eating disorder, it's just a fluke. This will go away when I find out I'm accepted to Harvard. Or this will go away when I leave this job.

And so there was a lot of back and forth internally. But I think the moment for me when I realized I needed help was when the owner and founder of the private equity firm approached me and said, Lindsay, I've noticed a dramatic physical change in you. Is there something going on we should talk about? And that question gave me permission to really say, I am struggling.

Flint: And this is something that you dealt with for about seven years throughout your time at HBS and afterward. What was your path to recovery?

Ronga: There are many things that affect everyone with eating disorders, and that's common across eating disorders. And I'll talk to three of those, because I think anyone with an eating disorder can probably identify with one of these three. And the first one was I didn't know how to recover. I tried everything from residential treatment, outpatient, medication, meditation, and all those fancy therapy tools you may have heard of. Recovery always felt overly complicated and complex. So that was the first piece I really struggled with is I was always staying busy in recovery and showing up for appointments, but making very little progress.

The second piece that I really struggled with was my self-worth. I was accepted to Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, and Kellogg, but I truly believed that I wasn't smart enough. And that was the eating disorder voice concocting these lies which were very persuasive and believable. And then add shame from having the eating disorder and the behaviors to the mix, and I really couldn't find anything that I liked about myself.

However, I pretended everything was fine on the outside. So externally, everyone thought I had it together, certainly during business school, certainly post-business school when I became CEO of a wine-social media company in New York.

And then the third piece I really struggled with was my relationships. Because I didn't know who I was and I was wearing this eating disorder mask, I struggled to genuinely connect with other people and come from a place of vulnerability and curiosity and getting to know others. So I sabotaged some of my most important relationships-- romantic ones, friendships, and alienated the people who cared about me the most, which were my family and friends.

That, for me, really encompasses the seven year struggle. I'd say those three things were the hardest for me to navigate during that time.

Flint: Did you arrive at a point where there was a particular breakthrough that finally changed the outcome for you?

Ronga: That's such a good question. In fact, I felt like there were many breakthroughs along the way. I went residential for 30 days and coming out of it, I thought finally, I did it. This is what recovery looks like. I'm not having the symptoms or behaviors associated with the eating disorder.

But the thoughts still lingered. And so it was like it was leaving a window open for the eating disorder to come back. And so jump back into that external environment of Harvard and applying for jobs and any type of stressor, and the place you go for comfort for me was always the eating disorder.

I continued to feel like I had breakthroughs because I'd hit some sort of milestone, but the real recovery came when I shifted my belief systems. I always say this to clients, but recovery or finding freedom is 80% mindset and 20% strategy. And I was focused on the strategy for those seven years in trying different tools and different avenues. And it wasn't until I adopted a new set of beliefs about myself that the strategy and tools actually worked. The relationships, the self-worth, and the not knowing how I've done a 180 on all of those, I met my husband here in Austin and had three children. They're four months old, two years old, and four years old. And that's a major milestone for me as a mom, but also as somebody who's recovered from an eating disorder where I had many doctors and therapists tell me that pregnancy and being a mom wouldn't even be possible given my medical condition.

For me, it's a reminder that your beliefs, what you choose to believe, are really, really powerful. You know Henry Ford was right when he said, whether you think you can do something or you can't do something, you're right. For those seven years for me, I believed I wouldn't find freedom, and I was exactly right. And I believed I wouldn't have children. It wasn't until I started to shift my belief systems that my life started to change.

Now, in addition to being a mom, I'm a yoga teacher. Of course, that was a path for me where I really found who I was at my core. And I want to share that with others and allow them to discover who they are. And then, of course, the eating disorder recovery coaching practice has been really a channel for me to have a meaningful impact in this industry. Because so many people are not getting the treatment they deserve.

Flint: You've developed a coaching practice called OutshiningED. What were some of the areas you wanted to address with that?

Ronga: I dove in on this research piece interviewing and studying hundreds of other women and men who had found freedom, to try to understand the commonalities. The one piece that shifted for anyone who had found true freedom was really changing their belief systems and their mindset. That, to me, was the idea that said, OK there's something here. Current treatment is not working. In fact, over 50% of those who received treatment will not have a team that specializes in eating disorders, and 80% of women who have access care for their eating disorders don't get the intensity of treatment they need to stay in recovery and find total freedom.

So knowing all of this, I wanted to have an impact. I wanted to do something. That's how the idea for a coaching practice was born around eating disorder recovery. My aim is to really shift the treatment to help people make fast momentum early on so they can really use that momentum to fuel finding their freedom. Because otherwise, you get stuck and paralyzed.

Flint: Can you say more about the services you provide at OutshiningED?

Ronga: It's a 12-week program, but it's essentially working through what I believe are the top hurdles to finding freedom. And like I said, a big piece of it is shifting your mindset. Of course there's an element to address the physical, emotional, and spiritual healing that needs to happen and addressing the food piece. But so often, people with eating disorders aren't in fact starving for food or the perfect body, they're starving for connection, love, and purpose. It's really addressing that piece in the beliefs that people hold about themselves. And getting over that hurdle before focusing on the eating disorder behaviors.

Flint: I think this is tied to what you're just saying, but it seems to me that one of the ways in which eating disorder recovery is different from, say, drug or alcohol addiction is that abstinence from food, or even exercise, isn't an option in recovery. How do you prepare clients to establish those new relationships in their life and recovery?

Ronga: That's a great question and great observation. And while other addictions are more black and white in their recovery, as you said, it's a substance addiction so it's giving up the substance. Eating disorders are a process addiction, and it's all shades of gray. There's no one right or wrong way to find freedom.

When I try to prepare my clients for this, it often is very difficult because people who struggle with eating disorders tend to have this all- or-nothing thinking, this black or white, this perfectionism type mindset. So a lot of it is shattering those beliefs about their life, themselves, but also about what eating disorder recovery looks like. That there's no failing in eating disorder recovery. There are only learnings and takeaways. And if something's not working, you change your approach and you keep working and look at that as a learning to propel you to the next level.

Flint: Can you talk about the role of silence and secrecy which seem to be really powerful drivers in all of this?

Ronga: You're exactly right in that secrecy plays a big role in eating disorders. And, in fact, the eating disorder thrives on secrecy. The more secret you are, the stronger the eating disorder gets. And I have to say, I mean, for seven years, I kept this a secret. Aside from my family, which also took a real push to get me to share, I mostly kept this a secret. Even two, three years after recovering, I still was ashamed that I struggled with this.

I mean it's a mental illness, but so many people still look at this as if you chose to have it, as if this was a choice. And that's most certainly not the case. The more I started to share my story, the more empowered I got and the weaker that inner critic voice got. And so it's such an important piece to finding total freedom is sharing your story.

And so in week four with my clients, that's a really big component, which is find one person you trust. Practice sharing that story to that one person before you ever do it. But it's so important to start to find your voice again and not let the eating disorder voice be the one ruling your life.

Flint: What are the ways that we can offer support to a friend, family member, or coworker who seems to be dealing with an eating disorder? And also, what are the counterproductive things that we should avoid saying to someone in that situation?

Ronga: Yeah, this is such a pat question and I love it. It's easier for me to jump in to what not to say. Because a lot of people will comment on your looks, they'll say why don't you just eat a burger? And I think that good intentions are there. But to somebody struggling with an eating disorder, it's extremely triggering anytime someone talks about food.

Anytime someone comments on your look, your appearance and says hey, you look really healthy. What's happening inside the mind of someone with an eating disorder is that person thinks I've lost control. That person thinks I'm fat. And everything is filtered through a lens of, I'm not good enough.

There aren't a lot of positive words people can say to really help someone who is struggling. I will say going back to my time in private equity, the owner and founder when he made a comment and said, hey, I want to check in and see what's going on. You know, I've noticed a change in you, and it was giving me that permission to move forward and get help. So I was so grateful that he did make a comment.

I would say to anyone that's a friend or family member you think somebody may be struggling, say something. And those words can be, hey, I want to check in and let you know that I'm here if you ever want to talk. It can be as simple as that just to let someone know that you care.

You may have heard, I think it's Tony Robbins, who says, get in your head, you're dead. It's very true with people who are struggling with eating disorders. You start to live in your head and it paralyzes you from ever taking real action and coming up with a plan to find full recovery.

Flint: And that must make it especially difficult for friends or family members to connect with someone that they see suffering.

Ronga: That's exactly right. When you're living in your head, you're not living from your heart, your intuition, or your body. You're second- guessing everything you say and you can't genuinely connect with those around you. For years, my parents and friends would try to have a conversation with me about the eating disorder and I could not come from a place of authenticity.

I still had this external mask on like everything was fine. If I can leave people with anything around eating disorder and mental illness, I think it's to talk about it. It's important to break the stigma attached with this mental illness. To raise awareness and raise understanding, really, of eating disorders, I think it's important for family members to talk about it. If they have a daughter, or a niece, or a nephew, or somebody struggling, don't be ashamed. And I say the more you talk about it, the more it opens that door for others to share their stories and gives them permission to get help as well.

So talk about it. Speak your truth, because as your voice gets louder, the eating disorder voice is going to get weaker. And that's a really, really important step to finding freedom.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

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Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2009, Section C

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